As the global economy moves into ‘interesting times’, sales will continue to provide the mechanism that keeps the IT industry running. For the reseller, current conditions provide a range of new opportunities and threats. Keeping on top of this environment requires a renewed focus on retaining sales talent, while also building the sales and technical skill sets that will be required to meet the business conditions of the future.
IT sales has some commonalities with other sales environments, but also some fundamental differences due to the high level of technical complexity. Navigating these waters requires planning, foresight and maintaining customer focus.
Building relationships and communications is critical, and staff need to develop these skills. But sales teams also need to ensure they include the expertise necessary to develop the business case and the technical solution.
Economic conditions are making the sales job more difficult, with a shift of emphasis to budgeting and ROI (return on investment) issues. This may require additional training and close observation of economic factors. It may also require a second look at rewards and compensation programmes to ensure sales staff remain motivated. It is important to note that motivation is not necessarily about money; other elements of the working situation are often more important, depending on the individual.
While the skills shortage continues to bite in some quarters, uneasiness about the economy is starting to cause proactive job searching; with an increase in résumés sent to recruiters and major IT firms. This is likely to result in some volatility. While there may be more people chasing fewer jobs, some may choose to pursue new opportunities or more secure situations. Training and staff retention will continue to be important, even where there is a tendency to cut budgets.
According to IBM mid-market sales manager Kate Tulp, “The best sales rep is someone who asks lots of questions, forms good relationships, understands the business environment, understands the product and/or solution and understands how to provide value to the client. If they have the right personality traits, then it is about homework. Sales reps need to read widely. They need to research the customer and the industry and understand everything that matters to the customer.”
Tulp suggests sales reps should gain this understanding by listening and learning. At IBM, sales staff are provided with regular product briefings, and also attend other vendors’ briefings and industry events. They read magazines, blogs and brochures and join communities that share information about technology.
As to personality traits, Tulp says, “Good IT sales people need to have a natural curiosity, combined with genuine interest in the person they are talking to — in the industry as a whole, in the product they are selling and in the customers’ requirements. They should be asking lots of questions, not doing all of the talking. They also need to be enthusiastic, resilient, find it easy to talk to different people, have a firm understanding of the issues and possess the ability to create solutions.”
A balance between sales and technical skills also needs to be maintained. IBM sales teams are structured to include sales people having relationship building skills, who are supported by people with a high level of technical knowledge. For an account manager or customer relationship manager, the emphasis is less on technical knowledge than on being able to listen, establish a connection with the customer, understand their business needs and determine which IBM offering needs to be applied, she says.
Retaining sales staff always poses significant problems and Tulp provides her formula for keeping the team intact:
• Give them the skills and tools to get the job done
• Make them feel they are working in a good team and that whatever they do is going to make difference
• Create an environment in which they can not only achieve targets, but also be successful and make money
• Keep staff motivated and interested by providing them with opportunities that challenge them, but also give them a chance to shine.
• Invest in staff and ensure they remain skilled by providing education, development or mentoring on an ongoing basis
• Create an environment they value, that’s fun and they can’t get elsewhere.
As to meeting customer objections, Tulp says, “Objections signal genuine concerns from a customer and these must be addressed. The sales staff must ask themselves what they missed along the way. Customers don’t wake up and decide to be difficult. It really boils down to a communication issue between customers and vendors.”
At Cisco, regional manager Jen Rutherford says, “Surveys show sales competency is first in customer buying decisions and even price is a good way down. The ability to be competent to a customer is about understanding the customer’s environment and acting as a customer advocate. Technical knowledge is secondary. In the current environment, it is important to shift from a transactional sales approach to a consultative approach.”
As to personality, Rutherford believes it is important to match the personality to the job. Some are better suited to relationship building, some tend to be generalists and some are specialists. The team requires a good mixture of skills and appropriate roles. “Technical specialists need to be able to get up to speed and we need to let them have time to be specialists and do the necessary research,” she says.
Retaining sales staff requires some research. Compensation is not always the prime motivator and there are significant differences in what people are looking for. For example, the things that motivate Generation X employees may not motivate Generation Y. Rutherford poses this question: “Do you understand what’s important to your sales team? It may not be what makes you happy.”
For the reseller, Rutherford says sales people should use vendors better. “Find out what are the top three things going on, learn those topics and then we can go out and deliver.”
“For SAP, sales always comes down to this: it’s a people business and people make the difference,” says SAP New Zealand general manager Graeme Riley. “Sales reps need the ability to understand a company’s issues, needs and the outcome they are looking for. Then they need to work closely with the company to achieve their objectives. They also need to work with the company to develop the return on investment. Nothing in the current economic climate will pass muster unless it has a solid business case.”
Riley says SAP has unique capabilities and tool sets for making the economic argument. “We have our entire sales staff trained in ROI, and this is backed by a specific team of individuals with in-depth knowledge in this area. We undertake ‘value engineering’, which allows us to identify value, compare to peer groups and provide benchmarks. The end is an ROI, but the whole process raises the level of conversation, making it more business-related.”
Use of this type of approach is also a good counter to objections. “Increasingly, objections are around value or pricing, and value engineering/ROI is what we keep getting back to,” says Riley. “If that work is done and clearly understood, it certainly delivers a baseline for discussion. For one thing, the ROI data is all the customer’s own material. If the business case is established, it is very difficult to argue with it.”
Although the key attribute and focus of sales people should be on their sales skills, keeping up with the technology remains important. This means technical specialists need to play an important role in the team. “The scope and scale of technology is ever-increasing,” says Riley. “There is no way that sales people can be experts in all of these areas. The key in getting a granular look at the product is that the specialists have the deep knowledge necessary to support it. Increasingly, sales people need to be good at working with and managing the team.”
Within this new environment, collaboration is emerging as crucial. This includes teleconferencing, instant messaging and videoconferencing. SAP is working with its people to develop virtual team skill sets. Communication is important, particularly ensuring that the broader team fully understands the status and requirements of the account.
In general, Riley believes there needs to be a much stronger alignment between IT and business. Business should own the project, with IT there to support, facilitate and deliver.
“What we are doing now is concentrating on making sure that our people are energised,” says Riley. “There is a real market opportunity here. IT finds itself in a unique position. In difficult times, it still has a strong role to play in terms of managing and controlling costs, while also implementing processes.”
PeopleCentral is in the business of locating, training and recruiting sales staff, and has a number of IT industry clients. Staff retention and training are important issues in the IT sales sector, and principal consultant Steve Evans has a word of caution for sales staff management in difficult times. “With a larger recession looming and businesses being put under pressure to reduce costs, training and development budgets are often among the first to be cut. We would hope that the more savvy IT businesses will see the value of maintaining staff development among their IT sales staff, and reap the rewards of both retaining their skilled staff and attracting new staff from their competition.”
For keeping staff up to date with selling skills and technology, Evans advocates careful planning. “Firstly, ensure there is a training and development plan that is linked directly to the overall business plan,” he says.
Selection of the right personality traits for the job is important. These are the same as those required in any sales role. “Essentially these consist of the motivation to set, then strive to achieve targets; ability to deal effectively with difficulties and setbacks, and establish and maintain effective working relationships with clients, peers and suppliers; being excited by, rather than suspicious of change; and having a strong sense of self assurance in abilities and possessing an ability to influence people and control situations.”
The times are now changing. “Right now, skilled sales staff continue to be a scarce resource,” says Evans. “But most recruitment consultants are reporting a sharp increase in the number of applicants for jobs across most industry sectors, as the economic downturn bites.”